The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I’ve read one of Leslie Jamison’s essays in The Believer, and another in Harper’s, but I don’t always pay attention to the author’s name when I read a magazine piece, and I hadn’t connected them. But there is a connection, and having her work all together the way it is in The Empathy Exams brings it out beautifully.

The opening essay covers medical empathy. Jamison discusses her work as a medical model patient: given a set of symptoms, she acts them out for med students to practice basic exam procedures – diagnosis, kindness, empathy, and so on. Her job is quite literally to evaluate and train the empathy of future physicians. Bringing the essay even more into the realm of the personal, she then discusses her own actual medical history, and a heartwrenchingly awkward conversation when she has to call her cardiologist to ask if her heart problems will have any impact on the abortion she’s about to have.

It’s all raw, whether she’s writing about long-distance runners and blisters, or getting mugged, or falling in love, or having sex, or the nature of literary and culinary sweetness (“In Defense of Saccharin” may be one of my favorites in the whole book).

If you read nonfiction, and especially if you want nonfiction that brings emotion as well as fact, you need this book.

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